Virginia has one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the country. The largest Jewish community resides in Northern Virginia (35,000), followed by Tidewater (10,950), Richmond (10,000), Roanoke (1,000), and Charlottesville (2,000). Fredericksburg, Harrisonburg, Petersburg, Staunton, and Lynchburg have small Jewish populations. Northern Virginia was once considered a place where Jews would now live, but its Jewish population has grown both within the inner areas of suburban Washington and in the regions that have developed beyond Dulles Airport.
The Jewish experience in Virginia dates back to Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated Roanoke Colony, then a part of the Virginia territory. Joachim Gaunse, a Prague metallurgist, landed with Raleigh in 1585. Elias Legardo joined the colony at Jamestown in 1621; John Levy received a patent for 200 acres on Powell’s Creek in James City County in 1648; and there are references to brothers Silvedo and Manuel Rodriguez, Sephardi Jews, in Lancaster County from the middle of the century. In 1658, Moses Nehemiah was discharged from debt in York County. Michael Franks and Jacob Myer accompanied George Washington in his 1754 expedition across the Allegheny Mountains and received rewards for gallant service. In 1757, Michael Israel and his wife, Sarah, bought 80 acres of land near the mountain pass between North Garden and Batesville, a pass since known as Israel’s Gap. Dr. John de Sequeyra, who lived in Williamsburg, was credited by Thomas Jefferson with introducing the custom of eating tomatoes. Solomon Israel bought land in Albemarle in 1764. The Gratz brothers of Philadelphia were trading in Fredericksburg and Williamsburg in 1776. Jacob Darmstadt, who arrived in the colonies as a Hessian soldier, was an early resident of Richmond, as were Isaiah Isaacs and Jacob I. Cohen, both veterans of the Revolution, who became merchants and owners of the Bird-In-Hand tavern. Moses Meyers settled in Norfolk in 1787. Samuel Myers settled in Petersburg in 1789. Commodore Uriah P. Levy of New York purchased and began the first restoration of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in 1836. He and his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy preserved and restored the estate, acquired by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923. Rachel Levy, the commodore's mother, is interred on the grounds.
Although Jews enjoyed more rights in the British Colony of Virginia than almost anywhere else in the world, they were not given equal status with their Christian neighbors until well after the Revolution. Many were members of the Masonic order. William Byrd II, George Wythe, and Richard Lee II studied
The first Jewish congregation in Virginia, Kahol Kadosh Beth Shalome, was established in Richmond in 1789. In 1848, Jews in the Tidewater region founded the House of Jacob Congregation, later known as Ohef Sholom; Congregation Rodef Sholom was formed in Petersburg in 1858; Congregation Beth El was organized in Alexandria in 1859; the Hebrew Friendship Congregation was established in Harrisonburg in 1870; Major Alexander Hart helped to establish the House of Israel Congregation in Staunton in 1876; Danville’s Beth Sholem Congregation was founded in 1881; in Newport News, organization of the synagogue was in 1887; Portsmouth's Congregation Adath Jeshurun was organized in 1893; Roanoke’s Temple Emmanuel was organized in 1897; and Congregation Agudath Achim was founded in Lynchburg the same year.
In the mid-19th century, immigrant German Jews founded some of the state's major retail concerns. William Thalhimer arrived in Richmond in 1840 and established Thalhimer Bros. department store that later became the largest in Virginia with branches throughout the state. Anthony Rosenstock opened A. Rosenstock and Co. in Petersburg in 1859; the Guggenheimer family was in business in Lynchburg in 1850; the Bachrach family in Warrenton; the Leterman family opened a store in Charlottesville in 1852; Leopold Wise, Herman Heller, Samuel Loewner, and Jonas Heller settled in Harrisonburg in 1859 and started businesses there. Records show that Virginia Jews served in the Confederate Army. Many of the sons entered professions or continued in the retail businesses established by their parents. Later waves of immigration, bringing the East European Jews, repeated to a large extent this pattern of economic activity. During WWI and WWII, the construction of important military bases in Virginia attracted many new Jewish settlers, especially in the Norfolk, Richmond, and Petersburg areas. The Jews continue to be prominent in the retail field as well as in the professions and in the distributing and manufacturing fields.
Since 1991, Virginia has exported more than $2.5 billion in goods and services to Israel. The Virginia Israel Trade Commission was established in 1986 by Governor Gerald Baliles to investigate cultural, educational, and economic opportunities. It was reformed in 1991 as the Virginia-Israel Partnership. Today, it is known as the Virginia Israel Advisory Board (VIAB) and provides
access to innovative Israeli technologies and partnerships with Israeli companies that grow the manufacturing and R&D base in the Commonwealth.
Norman Sisisky was first elected as the delegate representing Petersburg in the Virginia General Assembly in 1973 and later served nine terms as U.S. Representative for Virginia's Fourth Congressional District. Eric Cantor was elected as a delegate for Henrico County to the Virginia House of Delegates from 1992 to 2000, and in 2006 the U.S. Representative for Virginia's Seventh Congressional District served as chief deputy majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. Michael Schewel served as Virginia's secretary of commerce and trade under Governor Mark Warner.
The Legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia unanimously passed a measure in February 2015 recognizing the mutually beneficial relationship enjoyed between Virginia and Israel since Israel’s establishment in 1948. The Virginia House of Delegates passed the legislation in hopes that it would encourage Israeli companies to continue to invest in and do business with Virginia. The measure also passed with unanimous support in the State Senate.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order on his first day in office in January 2022 creating a commission to examine anti-Semitism in the commonwealth. The commission’s report, released in December, included a list of 21 recommendations policymakers could adopt to make the state better equipped to fight anti-Semitism. The same month, Attorney General Jason Miyares sent a letter to college and university presidents and trustees in Virginia, urging them to be aware of and appropriately respond to anti-Semitism on their campuses. In February 2023, Miyares announced a statewide task force would monitor and combat anti-Semitism in Virginia.
H.T. Ezekiel and G. Lichtenstein, History of the Jews of Richmond (1917); L. Ginsberg, History of the Jews of Petersburg (1954); idem, Chapters on the Jews of Virginia (1658 – 1900) (1970); J.R. Marcus, Early American Jewry, 2 (1953), 165–225; L. Huhner, in: A.J. Karp (ed.), The Jewish Experience in America, 1 (1969), 93–113. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M.I. Urofsky, Commonwealth and Community: The Jewish Experience in Virginia (1997).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Virginia-Israel Advisory Board.
Ira M. Sheskin & Arnold Dashefsky, “United States Jewish Population, 2022,” in Arnold Dashefsky & Ira M. Sheskin, Eds., American Jewish Year Book, 2023, (Cham, SUI: Springer, 2023).
Gabby Deutch, “Under shadow of Charlottesville, Virginia AG sets up antisemitism task force,” JewishInsider, (February 16, 2023